On January 20, 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad proved that an interview can itself be a political act. The embattled leader met with Foreign Affairs reporter Jonathan Tepperman in Damascus, where he apparently continues to live comfortably, and the two conducted an extensive interview about a variety of topics concerning the ongoing Syrian Civil War. By agreeing to an interview with an American foreign policy journal at a time when most of the world’s attention is focused on the rising influence of the Islamic State (IS), al-Assad is intentionally shifting international focus to himself and the Syrian government—thus underlining his recent successes in the civil war. In the exchange between himself and Tepperman, the president does his best to exude an air of calmness, confidence, and openness to negotiation, all while framing the multifaceted Syrian opposition as illegitimate and failing to represent Syrians’ true political views, thus making honest negotiations with them impossible. On the whole, the interview is part of a larger propaganda campaign undertaken by al-Assad to provide an alternative to the chaos and cruelty that have come to characterize the Syrian Civil War. While the interview covered a broad spectrum of issues, this article takes some of the most consequential and checks al-Assad’s claims against available facts, highlighting their intentionally self-aggrandizing nature.
One of the most prevalent themes found throughout the interview is al-Assad’s insistence that despite the myriad factions that have arisen during the course of the war, the Syrian people still believe in the overall unity of the Syrian nation. “The Syrian people are still with the unity of Syria; they still support the government… What we won in this war is that the Syrian people have rejected the terrorists; the Syrian people support their government more; the Syrian people support their army more.” The first part of this statement is indeed true—according to a recent study, the people of Syria do oppose the breakup of their country, and believe that a united post-war Syrian nation is possible. However this does not necessarily translate into support for the regime as al-Assad would have the reader believe, as evidenced by growing levels of desertion from the Syrian Arab Army and crumbling support for al-Assad even amongst his Alawite minority base. If al-Assad is referring to the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, and related organizations when he mentions ‘the terrorists,’ then he is largely correct in stating that the Syrian people have rejected them. However, if he is conflating ‘the terrorists’ with the moderate opposition as he has in the past, then his claims could not be further from the truth. Syrians are hardly running into al-Assad’s arms; many Syrians prefer the regime to IS simply out of fear rather than legitimate loyalty, and many still wish to see him removed.
At various points throughout the discussion between al-Assad and Tepperman, the president was eager to underscore his openness to negotiation and reconciliation with the political opposition in Syria. However he was also sure to define the validity of any opposition very strictly and to paint most rebel factions as ‘illegitimate.’ “Whereas the people we are going to negotiate with, who do they represent? It cannot be an opposition if it’s a puppet of Qatar or Saudi Arabia or any Western country, including the United States…they have to have grass roots to represent on their behalf. They know we have mainly al Qaeda, ISIS, and al-Nusra.” Much of what al-Assad is saying here is indeed true, at least to some extent.
Individuals and nations in the Gulf Region of the Middle East, which include Qatar and Saudi Arabia, indeed appear to be funding radical Islamic groups in Syria, including the nascent Islamic State. The United States has had a sporadic role in funding and training moderate Syrian rebels. US allies Israel and Turkey seem to have had a more active role in aiding moderate rebels, and in Turkey’s case, perhaps even the Islamic State, although this has not yet been independently verified. Some on the ground claim that Turkey is actively allowing IS fighters across its borders because the two share a common enemy in Kurdish resistance groups like the PKK and YPG, however such speculation does not line up with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent efforts to resolve certain Kurdish grievances. However, whatever Turkey’s role, the fact that many rebel groups receive outside funding does not make them ‘foreign puppets,’ as many moderate factions have grassroots support, stemming from legitimate grievances against al-Assad’s regime.
It is disingenuous for al-Assad to write off the rebel opposition as terrorists, as evidenced by nine large Syrian factions denouncing the Islamic State following its declaration of a new caliphate in the summer of 2014. Among these nine factions is the Islamic Front, a moderate Islamic organization that has clearly tried to draw a line between itself and more extreme rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which failed to put out any statement denouncing the Islamic State. It is convenient for al-Assad to ignore all of these details however, because doing so allows him to create a deceptively conciliatory public image while retaining power by refusing to negotiate with factions he claims are not representative of the Syrian populace.
Continuing on the topic of non-state factions, al-Assad addressed growing international concern over the staggering number of militias and unregulated arms flowing into and within Syria. Al-Assad states that because Syrian society is not as sectarian as Iraq’s, the country will go back to normal following the end of the war. “Things should go back to normal, like before the war. Syria… has a real constitution, a real, secular constitution. In Iraq, it is sectarian.” Al-Assad truly seems to be delusional here, as reliance on any pre-war constitution as a guarantor of order in post-war Syria is bound to run up against not just moderate rebel factions wishing for political reform, but also against the realities of what a long and bloody civil conflict can do to the fabric of a country. Although the civil war was not initially motivated by sectarian tendencies, sectarianism has indeed arisen, and putting Syria back together again will be a challenge to say the least. In Libya for instance, which has a more homogenous makeup than Syria, the 2011 Civil War and the subsequent proliferation of militias has led to a second civil war, in which sectarian and religious tensions are threatening to tear the nation apart. It seems that al-Assad’s stated refusal to see any parallels in his native Syria is an effort to project an image of confidence among his citizens, as well as exert an element of control over a war that most analysts agree is rapidly spiraling into chaos.
In light of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s mission to Syria in 2014, al-Assad is eager to claim that his government has personally taken successful steps toward ceasefires and conflict freezes. He mentions the ceasefire in Homs specifically as a successful example of this. “We implemented it in another city called Homs, another big city. In some areas, they [the rebels] left the area with their armaments.” Al-Assad’s claim that the Homs ceasefire was successful is partially true—while rebel forces in Homs did indeed lay down their arms, they effectively surrendered the city to government forces, resulting in both a symbolic and tactical win for al-Assad. However on the whole, the regime’s forces have taken advantage of the sudden rise of the Islamic State and other extremist organizations to put pressure on both moderate and extremist rebels, and following the start of the bombing campaign against IS by the US-led coalition, al-Assad’s forces have considerably stepped up their assaults on moderate rebel groups. Thus any claim that peace with rebel factions is a priority for al-Assad is dubious at best, however saying so reinforces his propaganda efforts once again.
Al-Assad also claimed in the interview that the close relationship between his government and Iran, whose Revolutionary Guard is already fighting in Syria on the regime’s behalf, has become even closer, and that the two are cooperating on a missile facility on Syrian territory. [Tepperman] “So everything that Iran is doing ... ?” [al-Assad] “Of course, in full cooperation with the Syrian government, and that’s always the case.” This has indeed been confirmed, meaning that while Iran and the US are working toward similar goals against the Islamic State in Iraq, in Syria the Shiite power is working directly with a government that the US has denounced. Statements like this allow al-Assad to argue that his government is in relative control of events going on within Syria’s borders and that the regime is not as isolated as statements from the West make it out to be.
Finally, al-Assad discussed human rights abuses in his prisons and against the Syrian civilian populace, denying the legitimacy of the claims leveled against him. Al-Assad states that individuals who had committed transgressions on the ground had been punished. “There is no verification of any of this evidence, so it’s all allegations without evidence. Some people were detained because they breached the law in that regard.” However, numerous independent reports have documented the Syrian government’s extensive human rights violations, both within regime prisons and in conflict areas, including the government’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs. The discussion of such human rights violations in the interview comes at a time when most international attention is focused on the Islamic State’s cruelty and executions, and it is in al-Assad’s interest to keep things that way if he wishes to continue winning the propaganda war in Syria.
As the analysis of this interview shows, some of al-Assad’s claims are indeed true or partially true, however the way in which they are utilized to craft a positive image of his regime obscures realities on the ground. As the Syrian Civil War continues to deteriorate into factionalism and Islamic fundamentalism, al-Assad is trying, quite successfully, to paint his regime as the answer to the instability, violence, and extremism that has engulfed much of the country and the region. In a civil war as ideological as it is tactical, winning the propaganda war may be the way out for al-Assad, and this interview was the perfect tool through which to further his recent rhetorical gains. By implying that the existing opposition are either foreign-backed rebels or terrorists who do not represent the views of Syrians, al-Assad is absolving himself of any responsibility to negotiate with them or work toward a long-term peace. In this twisted narrative, Syrians have a choice: either fall victim to the barbarous Islamic State, or come crawling back to the al-Assad regime. If this is the dominant view of the Syrian conflict, the solution is obvious, and al-Assad’s victory is all but assured.